Burmese Names

MahabhoteAfter speaking with some other non-Burmese monastics, I learned that we were all asked at the time of our ordinations if we wanted to choose a Pāḷi name, or if we wanted our preceptor to give us one. Only one said he chose his own name, but for the rest of us, it was given by our preceptors. The names are not given willy-nilly; there is a process and a meaning behind the process.

The first question asked is “On what day of the week were you born?” That’s a toughie for most, but for the Burmese it’s something they know off the top of their heads. In Burmese astrology, one’s astrological sign is determined by the day of the week on which one was born. Once that is known, the first auspicious letter for the name is selected (see the chart below), then, an aspirational Pāḷi name is given.

Days Letters Animal
Monday (တနလင်္ာ) k (က), hk (ခ), g (ဂ), g (ဃ), ng (င) Tiger
Tuesday (အင်္ဂါ) s (စ), hs (ဆ), z (ဇ), z (ဈ), ñ (ည , ဉ) Lion
Wednesday morning (ဗုဒ်ဓဟူး) l (လ), w (ဝ) Elephant w/tusks
Wednesday afternoon (ရာဟု) y (ယ), y / r (ရ) Elephant w/o tusks
Thursday (ကြာသာပတေး) p (ပ), hp (ဖ), b (ဗ), b (ဘ), m (မ) Rat
Friday (သောကြာ) th (သ), h (ဟ) Guinea Pig
Saturday (စနေ) t (တ), ht (ထ), d (ဒ), d (ဓ), n (န) Dragon
Sunday (တနင်္ဂနွ) vowel (အ, ဣ, ဩ) Garuda

In fact, this is an ancient practice in Burmese culture for the naming of children as well, except, of course, parents don’t choose Pāḷi names. So should you non-monastics decide to date a Burmese, you don’t need to ask “What is your sign?”, you can determine if from their first name!

With monastics, though, it’s a bit trickier because of the unique Burmese pronunciation of some Pāḷi letters (not that you should be trying to determine their signs for the sake of dating compatibility!). The following table shows a few examples:

Pāḷi
s
c
j
v

Burmese
th (သ)
s (စ)
z (ဇ)
w (ဝ)

So, for example, the first Shwekyin Sayadaw U Jāgara, Mingun Sayadaw U Vicittasārābhivaṁsa, and even humble ole me, U Sopāka, in Burmese writing and pronuciation, are U Zāgara (ဥုးဇာဂရ),  U Wisittathārābiwangtha (ဥုးဝိစိတ္တသာရာဘိဝံသ), and U Thawpaka (ဥုးသောပါက), born on Tuesday, Wednesday morning, and Friday, respectively. The “U” is a title for monks, and uncles, but that’s for another time.

Buddha and SopākaAs mentioned earlier, the names have meaning and are meant, in a sense, to be aspirational. Zāgara means “waking, watchful, careful, vigilant” 1, while mine, on the one hand, is to perhaps remind me of the boy Sopāka, who after hearing the Dhamma, attained sotāpanna at the tender age of seven. On the other hand, it means “a man of a very low caste, an outcast Sn 137,” and in another spelling variation, Sapāka, a “dog-cooker”! Not sure what to make of that.

Decisions and Impermanence

MahaBodhi Myaing SayadawOnce, there was an 80 year old monk who lived alone in a monastery. The monastery was just outside the village, far enough away that the villagers were concerned that should anything happen to the Sayadaw 1, they would not know and could not help.

So, the Sayadaw proposed that he would strike the temple gong rapidly to signal when there were any problems. The villagers were satisfied with this solution and went home.

A few weeks later, at around 4 am, the villagers were awakened to rapid gonging coming from the monastery. Blurry from sleep and worried for their beloved Sayadaw, they rushed to the monastery.

Upon arrival, they saw the Sayadaw sitting quietly, and apparently contentedly, in meditation. After some time, the Sayadaw, with a half-smile on his face, slowly opened his eyes.

The villagers said, “Sayadaw, we heard the gong and rushed here to see what the problem was!”

Sayadaw replied, “I have made a decision.”

Curious, the villagers asked, “What decision, Sayadaw?”

Sayadaw replied, “I have decided to remain a monk the rest of my life!”

Photo: Mahabodhimyaing Sayadaw on alms round (not the monk in this tale); from internet, photographer unknown

Notes:

  1. In Myanmar, “Sayadaw” is a term of respect for senior, much revered monks